Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Yossi Mekelberg
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Moments before the American president left Israel, in a surreal scene resembling a Hollywood movie, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a trailer parked on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport and apologized for the killing of nine Turkish nationals on board the MV Mavi Marmara. The killing took place during an IDF botched operation to stop a flotilla from attempting to break the blockade in Gaza back in May 2010.

Ostensibly, it demonstrated the role U.S. diplomacy can play in the region, however, in this case, both sides made use of U.S. diplomacy to climb down from positions they should not have been in the first place, but didn’t have the wisdom or courage to resolve themselves.

The crisis between Turkey and Israel has been partly rooted in genuine political and strategic disagreements, but those have been fueled by a clash of personalities with the emergence of more populist and divisive leaderships in both countries. Initially, relations between the two countries began to deteriorate following the war in Gaza at the end of 2008. At the time, Turkey was attempting to broker peace between Israel and Syria. Erdogan felt deceived by Prime Minister Olmert, who failed to inform him about the plan to embark on a military operation in Gaza. The Turkish prime minister perceived it as personal betrayal and an insult to Turkey, which also brought to an abrupt end to his peace initiative.

Israel rejected Turkey’s demands to resolve the crisis by extending a full apology... Instead, Israel accused Turkey of provocation, supporting terrorism and unacceptable intervention in its own domestic affairs.

Yossi Mekelberg

Considering the multi-layer web of strategic, political and economic interests between Israel and Turkey, one could have expected even then that both countries would patch up their relationship rather quickly. However, exactly the opposite has occurred, with both sides putting their national interests second to populism and the scoring of cheap points.

Erdogan’s outburst in Davos against Israeli President Peres, and the senseless humiliation of the Turkish ambassador in Israel by the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, are only two examples of how the relationship deteriorated. Obviously, the flotilla setting sail with the intention of breaking the Gaza blockade, and the violent attempt to stop it by Israeli special forces, which left nine Turkish citizens dead and number of Israeli soldiers injured, created an almost unbridgeable rift.

Israel rejected Turkey’s demands to resolve the crisis by extending a full apology, compensation for the families of the Turkish victims and removal of the blockade on Gaza. Instead, Israel accused Turkey of provocation, supporting terrorism and unacceptable intervention in its own domestic affairs. Consequently, within a year, trade between the two countries declined, defense industry contracts were frozen and Turkey threatened to increase the country's naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean. It all came to a climax when the Israeli ambassador in Ankara was expelled and Israeli tourists didn’t feel it was safe enough to visit the country.

Considering, the extent of the relationship between the two countries at the time of the flotilla and the strategic challenges as a result of the Arab Spring, Iranian pursuit of nuclear capability and the spread of extremism in the region, the need for reconciliation became even more pressing for both sides. For the U.S., and to a large extent the EU, it has always been of vital interest to see the explicit war of words between the leaders of both countries brought to an end. Turkey and Israel represent for many in the U.S. and Europe stability, democracy, economic development and most importantly close co-operation on a range of strategic issues. Turkey’s membership in NATO and Israel’s close strategic ties with the organization makes any rift between the two a cause of a major concern. For many years, Turkish-Israeli joint military maneuvers, upgrading of Turkish military hardware by Israel and ensuring energy security were a pillar of U.S. and NATO’s strategy for stability in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Furthermore, bilateral trade between the countries reached more than $4 billion before relationships went sour, building on series of agreements, including a free trade agreement, double taxation prevention and a bilateral investment treaty.

Turkey was also one of Israelis’ favorite travel destinations for many years. A visitor to the country will hear the sample complaints from Istanbul, to Ankara, to the beautiful beach resorts where hoteliers and shopkeepers in the bazaars lament the economic void caused by the absence of Israeli tourists.

The Palmer report produced by the Panel of Inquiry, appointed by the UN secretary-general, provided an opportunity for both countries, despite its obvious flaws, to resolve their differences already back in September 2011. Unfortunately, the Israeli government could not bring itself to apologize for its aggression and was only ready to express regret for the loss of lives. Turkey, on her part, would not back down from its demands to prosecute Israeli soldiers who took part in the operation, and the removal of the blockade on Gaza. No doubt, the language used by both sides, including Erdogan’s branding of Zionism as a “crime against humanity,” only last month, made any rapprochement very difficult.

However, it became somewhat easier for Netanyahu, free from elections in the foreseeable future and free from Avigdor Liberman around the cabinet table, to apologize to Turkey and in turn for Turkey to accept that prosecution of Israeli soldiers was a no starter for Israel. Even the blockade in Gaza, as disturbing as it is, has to be resolved outside the context of the current protracted crisis between the countries. This made U.S. mediation a more tenable proposition.

It might be the case that the Turkish-Israeli relationship will never be as it was before the tragic events of May 2011. Nevertheless, both countries interests dictate putting animosity aside and learning to work together once again, even if for now it is a very vulnerable reconciliation.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s College in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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